Fixing Nicollet Mall: Tear down the skyways

Photo by Sam Newberg
The website for the Nicollet Mall Project explains that Nicollet Mall has been “steadily deteriorating” and the goal is for Nicollet to become “one of the most vibrant, efficient and appealing public spaces in America.”
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If we really are sincere about making Nicollet Mall a premier must-see destination, and one of the most vibrant public spaces in America, a few things must happen. Whether or not we spend $40-plus million to rebuild the street and then more to route a streetcar down the middle, we should completely overhaul the zoning code for buildings fronting Nicollet – we need a form-based code for the buildings and the street. And we should consider tearing down the four skyways that cross Nicollet between 5th Street and 10th Street.

Before you shoot a million holes in this idea, hear me out. The website for the Nicollet Mall Project explains that Nicollet Mall has been “steadily deteriorating” and the goal is for Nicollet to become “one of the most vibrant, efficient and appealing public spaces in America.” One of the ten goals in the Downtown Council’s 2025 Plan is to ”transform Nicollet Mall in to a ‘must-see’ destination.” The designer of the Nicollet Mall Project, James Corner Field Operations has an impossible task – to save us from ourselves. They cannot do it alone.

This sounds like the last time we were mulling a reconstruction of Nicollet Mall. It was 28 years ago, when the committee tasked with making recommendations to the City Council invited Fred Kent of Project for Public Spaces to come and present his opinion. Coverage of his talk in the Skyway News reveals he pointed out lifeless storefronts, minimal vendors, dark, cold bus shelters, and that most outdoor seating was made of stone and uncomfortable. He also recommended getting rid of skyways. “You want to reinforce Nicollet as a main street, but if you put in more skyways, no one’s going to be on Nicollet.” He also said our buildings were “not related to the street,” and that more retail shops should face Nicollet, and we should have more retail and food vendors.

That was 28 years ago, and luckily we’ve made a fair amount of progress, although we still struggle with how to make Nicollet “one of the most vibrant public places in America.” The reconstruction of Nicollet that came out of that process 28 years ago resulted in arguably better bus shelters, a little more seating (although still made of stone), and a few more vendors (food trucks on Marquette are also worthy of mention). As well, better building design standards like the Target store and headquarters frame the street well and have added restaurant patios, adding valuable life. We’re also lucky that Macy’s hasn’t closed and that 150,000 or so souls still work in the downtown core and populate Nicollet. We’re getting some of this right.

Photo by Sam Newberg
Recall that where Let it Be, Sawatdee, Key’s, and the Christian Science Reading Room used to be there is not a single retail door facing Nicollet Mall that a member of the public can use.

However, we did build new or replace skyways, and we have fewer retailers that front Nicollet (that’s how the street has been “steadily deteriorating”). To be sure, new restaurants and their patios have helped, but we still allow office and private uses to front the street, and that’s a shame. Recall that where Let it Be, Sawatdee, Key’s, and the Christian Science Reading Room used to be there is not a single retail door facing Nicollet Mall that a member of the public can use. Sure, Target has a private playground in the space, but it’s like a fishbowl and that block is devoid of public life, not “vibrant” nor “must-see.” Keep in mind that the most vibrant block faces with the most retailers are found along the east side of Nicollet between 8th and 10th Street – primarily in buildings that pre-date skyways. We can learn from the past, and a form-based code can help maximize the number of retailers facing Nicollet in the future.

Photo by Sam Newberg
A combination of events like the farmers market, a
couple food vendors, restaurants, and yes, nice
weather, draw people outside.

It is also worth noting that, at least as of three years ago, a pedestrian count revealed that Nicollet Mall was the most well-traveled footpath downtown, beating any skyway. That is great, as a combination of events like the farmers market, a couple food vendors, restaurants, and yes, nice weather, draw people outside. But just imagine if skyway connections across Nicollet were gone? Those 14,915 pedestrians per day between Gaviidae Common and City Center, for example, not to mention three other skyways, would instead access Nicollet at street level, greatly increasing the vitality and retail potential for downtown’s main street. You see, in many respects, because skyways exist, we have to bend over backwards to get people down to street level, instead of it naturally occurring. If roughly half of the foot traffic across and near Nicollet is still suspended on the second level, we’re missing out on significant street level potential. At least the Downtown Council has acknowledged that skyways are both a gift and a curse, but it’s a shame if another generation passes before we do something about them.

What have we learned since we last rebuilt Nicollet Mall? Hard to say. Cities are great when they have beautiful streets, buildings that interface well with those streets and when there are people to activate that space. From that perspective, Nicollet Mall is like a three-legged stool with two weak legs and a third in need of repair (and it’s still a nice street! Just think if we strengthened all three legs!?). The skyways succeeded in their original charge, which was to take people off the sidewalk. We then constructed buildings that hardly addressed the street at all, and have tried in recent years to correct the latter while still struggling with the fact that skyways continue to keep people off the street.

So what are we supposed to do? We could bring Fred Kent back, but we know what he’ll say because he told us 28 years ago. The ribbon cutting in 2016 will be a great event for elected officials who hold out hope that a cosmetic facelift of Nicollet Mall will magically transform it. Unless we implement a form-based code so buildings relate better to Nicollet Mall and seriously consider removal of at least a couple skyway connections to better populate that street, our well-intentioned efforts to make Nicollet Mall one of the most vibrant public spaces in America will remain seriously hobbled. Start with one example – remove the skyway between Gaviidae Commons and City Center, put in five retail front doors in City Center facing Nicollet Mall (find retailers or temporary art galleries), add some moveable chairs, another vendor or two and that outdoor fire pit on the sidewalk and see what happens. I guarantee we’ll like the result.

This post was written by Sam Newberg and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 01/31/2014 - 08:47 am.

    Winter

    I read in vain, hoping for some idea of how to replace the great convenience of crossing streets in winter while staying warm. Unfortunately, there is no idea here. We get about six months of bad weather here in Minneapolis. Or at least weather bad enough that you wouldn’t want to go outside in your lunch break! Screwing up a creative path for pedestrians just so we can force some of them down to the street is an awful idea.
    It’s silly to risk the high functioning system we have now just so we can try and grab some national glory.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 02/04/2014 - 07:43 am.

      hat and jacket

      They make these great things now, filled with goose feathers and sheep hair. Ask your grandpa.

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/05/2014 - 08:57 am.

        Lunch

        If you’re working downtown and you have limited time to grab lunch, you don’t want to waste part of that time messing around with winter gear.
        Seriously, why would we even entertain the notion of expensive removal of the skyways so that we can inconvenience people enough that they’ll be forced outside?

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/31/2014 - 09:23 am.

    Glad it fell through.

    That building where Let It Be used to be had been scheduled for demolition so someone could put up a awful housing retail monstrosity. I think that’s a charming building with wonderful detail and I’m glad the project fell through. Let’s hope the building is rehabbed instead of demolished. Demolishing nice old buildings will NOT the mall any kind of national destination.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 02/03/2014 - 03:48 pm.

      It was rehabbed

      And is now a stylish play-space of some sort for the cool kids from Target. Looks great from the outside, but not open to the public.

      I’d have rather had housing and retail.

  3. Submitted by Pat Backen on 01/31/2014 - 09:46 am.

    Wrong Focus

    It is time to put this “remove the skyways” argument to rest. I recall a similar report from not too long ago, done in the summertime by out of state and country experts, recommending the same thing.

    This argument ignores the reality of of what people want, not to mention the weather a large chunk of the year.

    Lack of skyways will simply change habits as people find new inside routes, or places to spend their money. It may also create a problem in the nicer weather as those habits will need to be broken again.

    The other suggestions are spot on – create reasons for people to be there with interesting vendors, comfortable and movable seating, welcoming storefronts (that also include a link to the skyways for the cold months).

    Forcing people to the street is simply wrong on may levels.

  4. Submitted by David Stovall on 01/31/2014 - 10:20 am.

    On the sub zero day…

    I find it ironic I would be responding to this on yet another day I would avoid walking on Nicollet Mall on this sub zero day. I said my piece on this subject 6 years ago in a Minneapolis Star Tribune commentary “What’s Minneapolis Without Skyways.”

    http://www.startribune.com/opinion/13877771.html

    Little in my thoughts has changed in that time. It is not an either or situation. Nicollet Mall was and never will be a grand vista. It is a ground level fabric for pedestrian convenience. Removing skyways from Nicollet Mall would simply destroy the skyway network and do much more harm than any good for the Mall. Blaming skyways for street level demise of vitality is shortsighted and wrong. What’s missing, as I said in my commentary, are visible connections to the streets from our skyways in our dynamic three dimensional city.

  5. Submitted by Brenden Schaaf on 01/31/2014 - 11:16 am.

    Non-starter

    This is like saying we can force more people to use light-rail if we tear up all the streets. That would be a true statement but it doesn’t make the argument valid.

    Currently (and probably in the future) the skyways are necessary to keep downtown as vibrant as it is. That should be obvious right now as this winter has been cold and snowy and the skyways are the only thing that allow people to safely move about downtown during bad weather. Even in the summer it is safer and faster to travel the skyways than it is to walk at street level. Let’s start seeing the skyways for what they are — a community asset — and not as something that has to be eliminated simply because other cities don’t have them.

  6. Submitted by Jenny Cannon on 01/31/2014 - 11:22 am.

    Skways along Nicollet

    I agree that removing skyways is a bad idea. Who are you trying to appease, people who live and work DT or some urban planners? Designers have lovely vision, but they aren’t always practical. (I once had a space designer suggest puttling light switches in a closet because he didn’t like the look of them. That’s fine. Unless you don’t know they are there, then you sit in the dark.) With the MN climate being what it is, people need the skyways to get around and spend their lunch and shopping money. No one would cross Nicollet in the winter without them. I’d start with removing panhandlers, smokers, and aimless teenagers from the mall then see where you are. No one is going to use the mall in the winter, except for that parade which they are no longer going to have, so just accept it and plan from that perspective.

  7. Submitted by Andrew Richner on 01/31/2014 - 11:35 am.

    There’s a Bigger Problem

    The problem with Nicollet is wider than JUST skyways, JUST a lack of street-facing retail, JUST beautification … the biggest problem is that downtown itself is mostly office space and then the skyway-level mall for office workers. All of this “public” space is really private. The Crystal Court on the ground-floor of the IDS Center, for example, is a great central point for Nicollet. The problem is, since it’s IN the IDS Center, non-office worker traffic and use is tightly controlled. The central seating space is technically limited to 30 minutes and if you don’t look like an office worker, you are closely surveilled and quickly trespassed from the premises for any minor indiscretion (such as dozing off in the sun to the soothing sound of the fountain).

    If Nicollet Mall ever hopes to be a world-class, destination, there has to be more to do there (or to see there) than work and take a lunch break from that work. And for that you need public space that is free and open to all and not controlled private space such as patios and skyways. And yes, that should probably include some kind of shelter from future polar vortexes.

  8. Submitted by Hal Davis on 01/31/2014 - 12:15 pm.

    As a newcomer

    …I thought the skyways robbed the city of street life. A few winters here educated me.

  9. Submitted by Cheryl Kozicky on 01/31/2014 - 12:35 pm.

    Escalator or Stairs

    Wherever Skyways cross streets where we want folks to visit – we can add public stairs or escalators to get them between the street and the Skyway. Enclose the escalators in glass on the outside of the buildings and drop them right on down to Nicollet Mall.

    Removing the Skyways is only going to change my route. If I want to be in the Skyway, I will walk WAY out of my way to find a route to keep me in the system.

    I’ve been walking the Skyways since I was a child in the late 70s and have worked downtown nearly 30 years – the only thing that brings me down to the street is something worth visiting. Food trucks on Marquette, Farmers Market on Thursdays, Jeromeo to buy cute things (but that closed this winter), Music on Peavy Plaza, Brits Pub.

    And don’t leave places I frequented empty for years and years – the block where my beloved Walgreens and Rocky Rococo were is awful.

    • Submitted by Cynthia Ahlgren on 02/01/2014 - 12:59 am.

      access from skyways to the mall

      I was just ruminating on the idea of letting people on skyways exit to the street below (or access the skyway from the street) when I came across this comment. I heartily concur! It wouldn’t need to be a feature of every skyway, but just certain key skyways that cross Nicollet Mall. It would be wonderful to be able to reconnect directly with the street. Spying something from the vista of the skyway — such as a bus coming, a food vender, the sun coming out, etc. — could easily draw one out of the skyway system and back down to the street. What we have now makes that much more complicated than it needs to be and creates two very separate streams of pedestrians.

  10. Submitted by Bob Quarrels on 01/31/2014 - 01:08 pm.

    Bending over backwards

    Removing the skyways over Nicollet won’t necessarily encourage people to walk down Nicollet. People have another option, to stay on whichever side of Nicollet they started on.

    The author says, “because skyways exist, we have to bend over backwards to get people down to street level.” With skyways or without, Nicollet won’t become wonderful until we do bend over backwards. It’ll take commitment and imagination, both for design and funding. God love Target, but if their store and headquarters are the best we can hope for with “better building design standards,” it’s not going to happen.

    A big challenge glossed over here is that the north end has so little to offer. Too late now, but it would have made a world of sense to build the Guthrie where the library is, straddling 3rd Street perhaps, and put the library on a vacant block on Marquette. Then there would have been a bookend to Orchestra Hall and it would have benefitted Hennepin, too. That, however, would have required vision and planning. Which is to say, bending over backwards.

  11. Submitted by Andrew Caddock on 01/31/2014 - 02:49 pm.

    Not super constructive, but

    boy do I miss Let It Be.

    And, we do not have 6 months of Bad Weather. Put a coat on, geez.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 02/05/2014 - 09:00 am.

      Six Months

      Sure we do. Most years the bad stuff starts in late October and goes into April. Add in rainy days and you’ve got six months easy.

  12. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 01/31/2014 - 03:42 pm.

    Ugh

    I did hear you out, and that’s 2 minutes of my life I will never get back.

    This is the kind of thing that gives urban planning a bad name.

  13. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 01/31/2014 - 05:44 pm.

    So, enclose the sidewalks.

    If you want to get people out of the skyways in this weather, you’d have to heat the sidewalks. Just heating the open air is expensive, so how about glassing in the sidewalks? It’s not like there’s any street parking there anyway. Gee, maybe you could call ’em “groundways.”

  14. Submitted by Drew Hagquist on 01/31/2014 - 06:44 pm.

    Two additional considerations I think would be interesting to have the author, or anyone who calls for removing skyways from Minneapolis, address would be:

    1- Cost
    The skyways in Minneapolis are owned by the buildings they connect, and they probably have value to the building owners as they are willing pay to heat, cool and clean them, I suspect that removing them would require compensation to the attached building owners. Perhaps eminent domain could be used to take them if the building owners would not negotiate. In any event, the acquisition costs, along with the physical removal, would cost something. It would be interesting to have one of the proponents of skyway removal take a swag at what this would cost.

    2- Accessibility
    The skyways provide mobility for people who face physical challenges. A number of downtown residents have chosen to be downtown residents as the skyways allow them a greater ability to get where they want to go without having to negotiate streets and icy sidewalks (imagine using a cane outside yesterday or today, in comparison to inside). If the goal is to improve the street life by removing skyways to get more people on the street – I would think it would be interesting to have skyway removal proponents discuss why their improvement outweighs decreased mobility independence for those facing physical challenges.

  15. Submitted by Diggitt McLaughlin on 02/06/2014 - 10:41 am.

    PPS seems to have an issue with disabilities in public space

    I have previously encountered another well-paid “expert” on public space, from the Project for Public Space–and it’s safe to say handicapped accessibility never entered her head until it was forced on her. Why is the city even employing PPS? Sure, their work can be brilliant as long as nobody ever has to *ugh* encounter people on crutches, using a walker or a stroller, or worst of all, in a wheelchair.

    Like it or not, public streets and spaces are paid for by everyone and should be accessible to everyone. The Minnespolis presented in this plan is missing either the disabled and people pushing strollers–or it is missing winter. What am *I* missing, anyway that makes PPS think this plan has anything to do with US?

  16. Submitted by Kate Brown on 02/06/2014 - 07:48 pm.

    If you really want me to spend more time on Nicollet Mall —

    Give me some green space!!! I live downtown, work downtown, and walk nearly everywhere. And there’s really no place in downtown proper to take some of this great food truck fare & have a sunny lunch. Nowhere for folks to linger without buying drinks, nowhere to ever soak up the sun on our all-too-rare gorgeous days. It’s amazing how all these planners think skyways kill downtown but never seem to have the foresight to entertain the potentially huge impact some pleasant and accessible green space could have to lure people outside.

  17. Submitted by Matt SCHANBACK on 02/11/2014 - 12:46 pm.

    Close Nicollet Mall to cars and buses

    I don’t think closing or removing the Skyway conduits over Nicollet Mall would help get people on to Nicollet Mall. I think they’d just walk right past it to get whether they’re going and wish they could do so indoors. I think the biggest thing keeping people away from the Mall is traffic. Buses on the mall are loud and inherently dangerous. Blocking off the Mall between Washington and 10th street would allow for generous walkways and a dedicated bike lane.

    Pedestrian and biker safety would be improved. Room for the Farmer’s market, food trucks, evens and outdoor dining would be increased. The construction cost would be minimal, at first consisting of concrete pylons at the ends of each block to prevent cars from using the street.

    Future development could even convert the street area to a ‘walking park’ by replacing some or all of the street with green space. It would be a unique centerpiece of downtown. In the winter it could even be converted to skating areas.

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